I was surprised to learn that the fabled 92 Club – the movement that recognises those hardy souls who have attended a match at all the Football League grounds – dates back only to the late seventies – ironically perhaps in that the accession of Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic to the competition will have immediately thrown things into confusion.
The original proposal was for this feat to be recognised by the award of a tie – with League administrator Alan Hardaker backing the plan as well as a range of the red tops. Despite the new arrivals, it was a time of greater certainty, with the old boys’ network of the re-election process generally assisting the most determined supporters – so even Hartlepool United, with 14 repeat applications over a 60 year period was a safe ground to visit.
Self-imposed ground rules exist of course – some would have it that going out of one’s way, groundhopper-style, to tick a stadium off the list is not in the spirit while others would argue further and suggest that one should only count matches in which the club one supports is involved – a Preston North End supporting acquaintance is a representative of the paramilitary wing of The 92 Club in this respect.
Additional questions that have proved tricky to clear up have included the validity of FA Cup fixtures (personally, I’m not sure my trip to Aldershot to see Maidenhead United a couple of seasons ago properly counts) and whether a friendly (exhibit A: AFC Wimbledon 0 Reading 7) constitutes a kosher visit.
But these arcane doctrinal debates have in recent times been blown asunder by a series of wholesale schisms – and despite the presence of the admirable Doing the 92 website, heretical currents are now so widespread that the whole concept is perhaps irreparably damaged.
The most obvious problem came with the end of re-election and automatic relegation from the Football League. Take last May for instance – anybody who had the pleasure of a visit to Barnet’s Underhill or Aldershot Town’s Recreation Ground will have suddenly found their tally reduced to 90 – and that’s assuming that they managed the trek to Fleetwood Town’s Highbury Stadium in the preceding 9 months (as my fellow blogger Lloyd did in fact manage to do).
Then there are the myriad ground changes – Plough Lane, Highbury (no, not that one – a more obscure ground this), Leeds Road, Gay Meadow – the list is endless. Does a trip to Newport County’s Somerton Park count given that it is now a housing estate? Could purchasing a bag of peas from the supermarket that once obscured half of the away end at Bolton’s Burnden Park number as a visit of sorts?
Significant changes to a stadium’s aspect also cause confusion. Obvious cases include Dean Court in Boscombe where the pitch was rotated 90 degrees, but a time travelling visitor to Molineux or Stamford Bridge would also be most disorientated by what faces him today – in the latter case, one encounters a superb, steep sided arena with the fans hard fast to the action while in the 1970s, it was a windswept bowl memorable for the fearsome Shed and a muddy area where you could park and watch without leaving your disabled car.
Indeed, what are the implications of the arrival of the Premier League? Is it now a seventy two – should we disdain those who have extended to us nothing but their lofty hauteur and make it a more manageable challenge? That it’s £52 to attend a run of the mill fixture at the Bridge is also a deterrent of course.
But while those who have taken in a competitive fixture at both Roker Park and the Stadium of Light can perhaps breathe easily that they have all bases covered, the stickiest fly in the ointment is the existence of Milton Keynes Dons Football Club.
With a hardy band of fundamentalists still refusing to set foot across the portals of the Doubletree Hotel in Bletchley (including myself), The 92 is now forever under threat from a relabeling as The 91 – and Coventry’s recent defection to Northampton has only added to the uncertainty – ‘Doing the 92’ themselves back the boycott of Sky Blues’ fans and does a trip to Sixfields to watch the west midlanders truly constitute a notch on the groundhopping bedpost?
So we are presented with a Sisyphean task – as soon as we approach the top of the hill with our boulder, an attendant appears from nowhere, probably wearing one of those fluorescent tabard jackets and shakes his head slowly – ‘you never made it to York Street, guv’.
There is little option, therefore, than to embrace the positives of such an ever changing, multi-faceted pursuit – one that is almost postmodern in its ever shifting criteria, how it can satisfy most notions of achievement and where the tyranny of an undisputed measure of success has been taken away.
So we can relax in the pleasure of boasting about oddities. Those who saw Bournemouth during their fleeting spell at Dorchester’s Jewson Stadium or Bradford City at Odsal can point out that the 92 is much more than four score digits and twelve. We’re now also free to remember fondly visits to Sealand Road, Sincil Bank and the Abbey Stadium and such is the game of musical chairs at the top of the Blue Square Premier, who is to say that the latter two at least are not likely to be reinstated at some point?
One can also expend less time worrying about expensive transport links, spend the occasional Saturday in Ikea and participate with more gusto in events such as Non League Day – hell, the sartorial habits of the likes of Roman Abramovich and Tony Blair make the sporting of a tie less optional these days – so the prize for attainment of The 92 now holds less allure.
Rugby doesn’t count mind – so if you’ve only seen Hunslet at Elland Road, be off with you.